Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Last Sunday I hosted my older son, a resident of Astoria for fifteen months. Todd’s most remarkable trait is his astounding linguistic expertise (Myself, I speak Latin, a talent that I keep polished for the day the Forum of the Twelve Caesars is reopened). Todd is fluent in German and Portuguese, near-fluent French, Spanish, Japanese, and oddly Rumanian. He has some abilities in Hungarian, Ukrainian, Greek and Arabic. This should make him a most useful dining companion. Alas, he refuses to use his skills in my presence. He insists on dining together where he cannot speak the language, preventing me from insisting that he query the chef for that perfect specialty that I know is waiting for me off the menu. I would think that bending to this ploy is a small enough return for an Ivy League education, but he is a serpent’s tooth.

Tonight we dined on restaurant row on 2nd Avenue in the 70s. I recall from my youth when in that stretch of Yorkville, the dining choices were German, Bohemian, Bavarian, Prussian, Czech, Austrian, and perhaps a bit of Hungarian and Slovak, too. Bookstores still sold Mein Kampf (under the counter, if you asked nicely). These good people pined for what might have been, in the meantime serving some pretty mean schnitzel. It seems only yesterday.

Our choice was Üsküdar. Turkish is a language with which Todd is still unfamiliar – although he threatens to learn Farsi, crossing yet another cuisine off my list of possibilities. Fortunately the servers spoke English, and I did not demand that he pretend to speak mock-Turkish.

Üsküdar is a small, pleasant restaurant (seating about 30), slightly upscale from storefront kitchen, but less decorated than many of the restaurants along that stretch. They were not aiming for the kind of faux authenticity of many more elaborate Turkish establishments, but merely presented quite good food.

I started with Cacik, a cold cucumber soup, blended with garlic, mint, dill, and yogurt. On a hot night, the soup was a cool relief. I felt that it was, perhaps, a bit thick for my taste in that it seemed more like a condiment for the loaf of bread we were served than a true soup.

My main course was Grilled Quail (three). This was a simple dish, but expertly prepared. It tasted just as promised and the rice and peppers made a suitable accompaniment. Perhaps the flavors did not hit another taste register, but not every quail needs to be draped with a burgundy-fig-thyme-demi-glace to be presentable.

My son’s Chef’s Mixed Grill - lamb, chicken, lamb patty, and lamb chop, and adana (chopped lamb with peppers and paprika) - reflected the range of Turkish cuisine as found in most “respectable” restaurants. If this is cuisine that can be announced on their menu – not hidden for questioning by the likes of me - it reveals that Üsküdar knows their customers.

Most ethnic restaurants lose me at dessert. I could manage if French chefs went on strike, but give the pastry chefs whatever they demand. Desserts are France’s gift to cardiology. For the life of me I can’t see how French women continue to look like French women: no one could give up gateau for Lent.

Üsküdar is an exception to my rule that ethnic desserts should be banked for the moment one passes a patisserie. My Kayisi (apricots stuffed with almond and “wheeped cream,”* and powerfully scented with coriander) was as good a Middle Eastern dessert as I have had. My son’s Keskül (coconut pudding) was the sweet soup that bookended my Cacik.

Üsküdar is one of those restaurants that will not reach my “best” list, but at $60 for two it is a restaurant that makes dining in New York not only possible, but charming.

1405 2nd Avenue (between 73rd and 74th)
New York, NY 10021

*I find those who make fun of the misspellings of others beneath contempt, but I make an exception because I prefer this emotive spelling to our excessively sadistic alternative.

Be warned: Üsküdar only takes AMEX.

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